Guide to MEDELLÍN – And a Day Trip to GUATAPÉ

Let me guide you to Medellín – which is also a great gateway for a fantastic day trip to the mesmerizing town of Guatapé.

Fernando Botero La Muerte de Pablo Escobar. One of the drug baron's mansions was between Medellín and Guatapé
Fernando Botero La Muerte de Pablo Escobar
Escobar was shot and killed by the Colombian National Police already in 1993, but like all the rest of this beautiful country, since then, Colombia progressed a lot; sadly, without the world taking notice.I wish my post will change that at least a bit.

Arriving at the outskirts of Medellín, we heard a deafening thunder followed by a bolt of bright lightning – something had exploded.

Welcome to Medellín.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Quickly, we understood that we didn’t experience a violent attack in the former murder capital, but that there was a thunderstorm coming down on Colombia’s “city of spring”. What gave us a hint? For instance, the torrential rain that washed us towards our hotel. Oh man, I didn’t wanna get stuck at my – however very nice and comfortable – hotel room!

Guided tour from MEDELLÍN - on a Day Trip to GUATAPÉ
Islands in the liquid sun.

Since a couple of years ago during hurricane Mitch, I had to spend scary days in a hotel room in Tegucigalpa while outside people lost all their belongings including their lives, extreme weather conditions make me extremely nervous.

Look Back in Anger

Everybody knows Medellín’s rough, violent past. Many of these lost souls had to flee from their little piece of land on the countryside, threaten, scared or chased away by one of the fighting forces, either the paramilitary right, the left-wing guerilla, or a drug cartel. Eventually, they got stranded in the city.

Like the lady that has been pushing all her belongings in a shopping cart across Plaza San Antonio for decades. She has lost her husband and kids by one of these groups. Now she is saving every peso she can afford. Thus, one day, she’ll hopefully be able to return to the place she fled from.

Learning From a Local

How do I know this? Juan told me.
Who Juan is? The guide at Real Walking Tour Medellín who guides groups through downtown, pointing out special places and narrating the country’s, the city’s, and the people’s stories’n’history.

It’s only thanks to his energetic and entertaining attitude that after following him and his anecdotes for almost four hours, you’re not too depressed. Because when you get to the root of it, all of them are more or less atrocious and depressing.

Like one of the two Botero birds on Plaza San Antonio, one of Medellín’s most dismal places.

During a rock concert in 1995, someone placed a backpack with a bomb in Botero’s bird statue, and it killed 25 people including a pregnant woman and a 7 years old girl.

Guided tour through Medellín-  Fernando Botero's El Pajaro and El Pajaro de la Paz. Gateway for a Day Trip to Guatapé
Fernando Botero El Pajaro and El Pajaro de la Paz

To this date, nobody knows officially which group is responsible for this barbaric act.

It was the very Fernando Botero who forbid the mayor of Medellin to clean the ruins of his work. Now there is a plaque with the victims’ names. Botero donated a second bird that symbolizes peace and hope for the new Medellín.

Parque Botero between the Museo de Antioquia and the Palacio de la Cultura Rafael Uribe Uribe in Medellín
Going hooking between the statues at Parque Botero between the Museo de Antioquia and the Palacio de la Cultura Rafael Uribe Uribe seems to be nothing like “Irma la douce”.

Medellín is the way I was afraid Bogotá would be. It’s dirty, aggressive, lost with many poor, homeless people around and groups of pathetic prostitutes lingering around churches. Godforsaken places – called Parques, definitely not being parks – full of sketchy people.

Two cops in Medellín.
Enjoying a well-deserved ice cream while serving and protecting.

City Tour of Medellín

There are two main highlights in Medellín not to be missed. For one, there’s the Museo de Antioquia – housing i. a. a vast collection of Fernando Botero’s paintings and sculptures – as well as the adjacent Parque Botero with many of his voluptuous statues.

Sculptures at the Parque Botero in Medellín
The unshapely people and things created by Colombian superstar Fernando Botero make parts of Medellín an outdoor museum.

While a visit to the square is, obviously, free of charge, to visit the Museum, you need to buy a ticket, but it’s worth every peso.

Museo de Antioquia

You not only get to see their permanent collection that includes many huge, fantastic Boteros.

Sculpture by Fernando Botero at the Museo de Antioquia in Medellín
Everything gets out of shape in Botero’s hands.

There are also paintings and sculptures the master donated from his private collection including works by Wilfredo Lam, Frank Stella, Alex Katz, and many more.


Fernando Botero donated Armand Fernández' Expansión Sinfónica - Concert Expansion to the Museo de Antioquia in Medellín
Paintbrushes – that’s all it takes.
Fernando Botero donated Armand Fernández’ Expansión Sinfónica – Concert Expansion.

There are also multiple temporary exhibitions – each and everyone just sublime.

Sad Relicts

The one that impressed me most is by Colombian photographer Erika Diettes: As a reference to the suffering of her people,  she created at the Museo de Antioquia her Relicarios.

Erika Diettes Relicarios - temporary exhibition at Medellín
Erika Diettes Relicarios

From 2011 to 2015, the artist visited families all over Colombia who are mourning their disappeared loved ones. She listened to their stories and got a ‘relict’ that once belonged to the victims. Some relatives even travelled from secluded places just to hand Diettes the treasured objects. Sealing these ‘tokens’ individually in cubes of rubber terpolymer, Erika Diettes arranged these ‘gravestones’ into a graveyard of remembrance.

Walking through this cemetery, you are looking at random pieces – and they are telling you a story; a very sad one.

Thank you, Fernando, for giving me the honor to be “Pedrito” for a couple of minutes. 

However, this exhibition was temporary – check their very informative website to see what’s one right now and plan your visit accordingly.

Part of the permanent collection is also a room for the children and the childish: You can put on a uniform and incarnate Botero’s painting Pedrito that shows the artist’s son who tragically passed away at the age of four;
why does everything have to have a depressing twist to it in this city?!

Museo de Antioquia
Carrera 52 # 52-43
Medellín
Phone: + 57 – 4 – 251 36 36
Email: info@museodeantioquia.org.co


The museum is open Monday to Saturday from 10 a. m. to 5:30 p. m. and Sunday only till 4:30 p. m.

Guided Tour of Medellín

The other must-do activity should a guided tour by Real City Tours where local guides tell you a lot about what’s going on behind closed doors.

Sometimes even individualists might cherish the warmth of belonging to the herd.

Although Medellín is developing and even was awarded for its progress, the vibe in the city center is not as relaxed as in Bogotá.

Life is what happens in Medellín between Iglesia de la Veracruz, fruit carts, and office buildings.

So I honestly recommend this tour since you’ll get a whole different and much more complete perspective on Medellín than walking around by yourself.

Day trip to Guatapé

One thing you definitely shouldn’t miss is a day trip to Guatapé. It’s famous for the breathtaking views from a 200-meter high rock – cleverly called La Piedra -as well as for the town of Guatapé with her colorfully elaborated facades.

Since due to the unpredictable weather it was difficult to plan a day out, I thought a touristy group trip would be the best option. And it actually was. Being the only Europeans on a busload of mostly Latinos, we visited El Templo Roca where the whole town got ready for Palm Sunday.

Going on an Organized Tour

For US$ 28 per person including refreshments it was worth every cent, especially since we got to see far more places than we had seen going by ourselves.
Therefore I’d recommend it even if the weather allows an individually organized trip.

We took a boat ride on Lago Guatapé where a lovely Colombian family shared a laugh and their aguardiente from a tetra pack with us while we were maneuvering around the remains of Pablo Escobar’s former mansion.

Guide to GUATAPÉ, a Day Trip from MEDELLÍN
Gringas – always a welcomed fairground attraction. 

The main reason for doing this tour were the panoramic views from La Piedra.

After climbing 750 steps, you have a great view of the picturesque composition of numberless islands. I’m sorry, guys, I took my pictures when there were dark grey clouds and shitty light so they look nothing like the ones I saw on the internet.

Guide to GUATAPÉ, a Day Trip from MEDELLÍN
Panoramic view of the surrounding islands when the sun is out.

Please be so kind as to google them from others if you want pretty. Or look at mine if you go for a rather melancholic version.

Guide to GUATAPÉ, a Day Trip from MEDELLÍN
And the panoramic view of the surrounding islands when we are out.

The whole trip is nice and interesting, but also a bit bizarre since you are visiting places that technically do not exist anymore. They were – at least partly – reconstructed…

I don’t know, it deems a bit Disney World-ish, but anyway, here are the places we go to see:

El Nuevo Peñol and El Templo Roca

To transform the reservoir of Guatapé into a large catchment lake certainly was a very ambitious project. By filling it up, also the old town of El Peñol was completely flooded and eventually reconstructed 1.5 miles west.

Only that architecturally and sociologically, it has very little to do with its predecessor.

Guide to GUATAPÉ, a Day Trip from MEDELLÍN
Palm Sunday at El Nuevo Peñol.

The most prominent landmark here is the church El Templo Roca, a house of worship hewn in stone.

Parque Temático Viejo Peñol 

Parque Temático – like I said: a little bit of Disney World.

Founded in 1714, this municipality used to live from agriculture, but slowly changed to tourism and river fishing. Until in the late 1970s, it was simply washed away.

Guide to GUATAPÉ, a Day Trip from MEDELLÍN
The replica of the Peñol’s church – practically the counterpart to Cinderella’s castle at Disney.

What you see today, is a small replica of the vanished town. The Nuevo Peñol looks nothing like this and lost all the colonial charm.

Lago de Guatapé

So the whole tour includes also a boat ride on the Lago Guatapé. Today, wealthy Colombians have some amazing holiday homes around the lake – and so did Mr. Pablo Escobar.

Guide to GUATAPÉ, a Day Trip from MEDELLÍN
Pablo Escobar’s former residence – huge, yes, but pretty run down.

You can spot the remains of his former mansion from the cruise.

El Peñón de Guatapé aka Stone of El Peñol

The main reason for doing this tour was the view from La Piedra, the Rock. Some call it El Peñón de Guatapé – that would be the people of Guatapé – others call it Stone of El Peñol; guess where those are from.

Guide to GUATAPÉ, a Day Trip from MEDELLÍN
It might have been a bit less exhausting climbing the steps in liquid sunshine.

After climbing about 700 steps – the figures differ and I did not count while climbing – you have a great view of the picturesque composition of numberless islands.

Guatapé

On the one hand, the construction of the dam on Lago Guatapé, the region became one of the country’s most important electric production centers. At the same time, they nourish and cherish the colonial and artistic appearance of towns to make them attractive for tourists; which works pretty well.

Guide to GUATAPÉ, a Day Trip from MEDELLÍN
Last stop Guatapé, the charming little town where every house shows stucco according to the owner’s trade. 

Guatapé was founded in 1811 by Don Francisco Giraldo y Jimenez and declared a municipality in 1867.

Since the early twentieth century, the sockets, the zócalos, show scenes related to the town’s history.

Guide to GUATAPÉ, a Day Trip from MEDELLÍN
A Zócalo depicting its father Jose María Parra Jiménez who started this unique artistic tradition in 1919.

Some are just adorned with beautiful decors like flowers, market scenes, or the typical chicken buses. But all these images have one thing in common: They are fantastically painted in bold colors.

Guide to GUATAPÉ, a Day Trip from MEDELLÍN
The church Nuestra Señora Del Carmen….
Guide to GUATAPÉ, a Day Trip from MEDELLÍN
….a well…
Guide to GUATAPÉ, a Day Trip from MEDELLÍN
…and both together on a Zócalo.

Practical Information

How to Get There

By Plane

Medellín is Colombia’s second-largest city, so there, obviously, is an international airport.

However, the Olaya Herrera City Airport serves national destinations by only three airlines. The busier José María Córdova Airport in Rionegro is about 40 kilometers southeast of Medellín. You can easily get there by a collectivo, a shared cab, for less than 20,000 pesos. These cabs are leaving from a designated spot where you have to get by regular cab.

A regular cab charges about 80,000 pesos for a ride to or from the airport.

An alternative might be the airport bus that sets you back around 10,000 pesos, however, Sundays and in the early morning or late at night, this might not be a valid option.

Normally, the ride takes about an hour. Anyway, on such a long route, much can happen, so I would calculate at least 90 minutes and also make sure to be at the airport at least two hours before national departures and three before international.

We flew from Medellín to Cartagena and since I am me, we were there far too early. But it’s like they say: The early bird catches the worm flight.

By Bus

Coming to Medellín from Salento, we took a direct bus which costs a bit more than the local buses, but is much faster and especially with the luggage more comfortable than venturing via Armenia or Pereira.

Mind you, there are two long-distance bus terminals in Medellín: Terminal Sur and Terminal Norte.

Buses from Terminal Sur, which is located next to the Olaya Herrera Airport, are going to destinations south of Medellín whereas coaches leaving from Terminal Norte are going north and east of Medellín.
There are actually 54 ticket windows selling tickets for many different bus companies that provide service to over 120 destinations alone in Colombia.

If you want to do the day trip to Guatapé by public bus, you also have to leave from the Terminal Norte. Going by Sotrasanvicente, the first bus leaves Medellín at 6 a. m. and the last one comes from Guatapé at 7 p. m. However, adding all the extra costs like going to the bus terminal, buying lunch, paying entrance fees, etc., it’s actually hardly cheaper than an organized tour.

How to Get Around

Apart from a comprehensive local bus system, Medellín is Colombia’s only city that has a monorail system. This makes travelling even to remote parts of the city really easy and very cheap.

Getting from the Hotel El Portón de San Joaquin* to the city center, we took the metro at the stop Estadio and got off three stops further at San Antonio – quick, safe, and easy peasy.

Obviously, you can always hail a cab. They are very reasonably priced – and metered, so no haggling here.

Besides the ‘traditional’ yellow cabs there are now also green cabs which run electrically.

Best Place to Sleep

We stayed in the upper-middle-class neighborhood San Joaquin – not on purpose but because the hotel sounded great – and it was. However, the Hotel El Portón de San Joaquin* is not located in the center but three subway stops further west. It’s only one block from the Carrera 70, a very lively street packed with stores, restaurants, and bars.

The hotel has nice, very modern rooms as well as a rooftop sauna which is a great treat after a long day exploring. Also, booking the tour to Guatapé with them was far cheaper than what you find on the internet.

Also, an opulent breakfast served in a very pleasant setting is included.

In case you cannot book a room at the Hotel El Portón de San Joaquin*, here are some good alternatives*:

Booking.com

Best Place to Eat

We were so lucky that the Hotel El Portón de San Joaquin* was only two blocks from the fantastic organic grocery store Salud Pan that every day also offers five great menu options including vegetarian food.

These paintings at the organic shop and restaurant “Salud Pan” not only cheered us up, but also gave us faith – that brighter days would come; and it actually cleared up the following day.

We got soup, main course, dessert, and a drink at an incredible 5 to 6 US$, depending, obviously, on your choice of the main course.

Salud Pan
Circular 4ta No. 70 – 84
Barrio Laureles
Medellín
Phone: + 57 – 4 – 411 69 35

Medellín and Guatapé were, obviously, only two of many beautiful places I’ve visited in Colombia. So to read about the others, go to the main post and take your pick!

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